Kevin Wolf/AP Images for Dow Solar
The team from Parsons The New School/Stevens Institute of Technology poses with their sponsor Dow Solar in front of their "Empowerhouse" completed at the US Department of Energy Solar Decathlon on Sept. 22, 2011, in Washington.

How student-built solar homes can help solve US housing and energy crisis

Few of the homes created by university teams in the Solar Decathlon are ever lived in – despite their extraordinary expense and tax on the environment. Instead of building temporary show houses, schools should build energy-efficient homes for local people who need them.

Can more than 100 student-built solar homes help solve America’s housing and energy crisis?

The housing market is still riddled with foreclosures and the median home price fell in January to its lowest point since November 2001. Meanwhile, gas prices keep climbing, reigniting the debate over America’s oil dependence and clean energy alternatives.

It’s no wonder then that the Department of Energy is relaunching its flagship program – The Solar Decathlon – which enlists students to build solar-powered houses that are “cost-effective, energy-efficient, and attractive.” The program has produced nearly 100 houses – distinguished by their energy performance, but also their cutting-edge design. Many of them have been displayed on the Mall in Washington, D.C.

But as the housing crisis forces many Americans into foreclosure and even homelessness, few of the Solar Decathlon homes are ever lived in; some are literally never reconstructed once the Decathlon event concludes after a few short weeks. None of that, however, speaks to the extraordinary expense and environmental impact involved with shipping tons of building materials – glass, steel, and wood – along with dozens of people for every team across the country.

Rather than building temporary show houses, imagine instead if such resources were redirected to building energy-efficient homes for real people who need them, if not working to improve the efficiency and affordability of existing homes. Students and universities can still pioneer new models of home building, but they should do so by partnering with communities in need and organizations already focused on serving them.

There is little doubt that the Solar Decathlon program has provided an invaluable, collaborative learning environment for teams of architecture and engineering students. And its two sites to date – the Mall in Washington, D.C., and this past year the nearby Tidal Basin – have exposed countless visitors and nearby lawmakers, presumably, to the art and science of green homebuilding.

On the other hand, these same 100 or so houses account for massive investment on the part of universities, and also corporate sponsors and taxpaying citizens.

Consider the numbers: Twenty teams, representing nearly 30 different universities from around the world, will collectively travel a conservatively estimated 40,000 miles to participate in the 2013 Solar Decathlon. That distance is nearly one and a half times the circumference of the Earth. These aren’t light travelers; we’re talking about teams of people, plus an entire home and the resources to reconstruct it.

The University of Minnesota’s entry from 2009 provides a powerful example of this conflict. The futuristic-looking house now stands quietly at a prominent intersection on the university’s campus, its outside walls and rooftop clad in deep-blue solar panels. The house and its team placed fifth overall and earned top honors in engineering and lighting design in the 2009 competition.

But the 550 square foot, one bedroom home also cost over $1.5 million, when transportation and other direct expenses, student labor, and donated services were taken into consideration.

“I fear the Solar Decathlon only reinforces to the public that sustainable design is for the rich,” laments Dean Thomas Fisher, visibly proud and perplexed by Minnesota’s house.

As a result, the school has redirected its energy to designing and building “net-zero” houses with its local Habitat for Humanity affiliate, including one recently completed house in Princeton, Minn. A single mother of two teenage daughters, Princeton resident Jeanette Jensen purchased the roughly $100,000 energy-efficient home with a no-interest mortgage, and will save hundreds of dollars in utility costs each year.

Another affordable, net-zero house is under construction in North Minneapolis, and a third is in development at the school. “Our goal is to show that green housing is affordable to everyone,” explains Mr. Fisher.

Katie Swenson, vice president of National Design Initiatives for Enterprise Community Partners – a leading advocate and funder of green affordable housing across the country – shares many of Fisher’s concerns.

And yet Ms. Swenson sees value in the process as an academic experience. “I’ve heard countless young designers say that they were transformed by the Solar Decathlon,” she explains. “...However, the question of what happens afterward really is concerning.”

Swenson points to one promising example, where last year’s Solar Decathlon entrants from Parsons School of Design in New York focused on the revitalization of an actual DC neighborhood, rather than a hypothetical one.

Their cleverly titled “Empowerhouse” is one of two side-by-side homes built in partnership with Habitat for Humanity’s DC affiliate, Enterprise, and other contributors. One of the homes was built on-site, while the other was constructed on the Mall, dissembled, relocated, and rebuilt next door. Still under construction, the two homes have families awaiting their completion.

Since 2004, architecture professor John Quale has done similar work at the University of Virginia through the ecoMOD housing line, which grew out of the school’s Solar Decathlon entry and a partnership with the Piedmont Housing Alliance and Habitat for Humanity in Charlottesville.

Rather than shipping materials around the world, truly sustainable homes would be built with locally sourced materials and labor. This makes sense from a cost-saving standpoint alone, but it’s also a way to stimulate local economies, incentivize homebuilders, and raise expectations of homebuyers.

In a speech last month, Energy Secretary Steven Chu extolled, “As President Obama made clear in the State of the Union address…we need to ensure that the next generation of America’s architects, engineers, and entrepreneurs have the hands-on experience and training they need to lead our nation’s clean energy future.”

This kind of collaborative, hands-on construction and clean energy experience shouldn’t be so rare for architecture and engineering students. Communities across the country – and world – need energy-efficient, affordable homes right now.

The Solar Decathlon has shown that architecture and engineering students can create beautiful, efficient homes. The Department of Energy should greatly improve the program, however, by instead putting it to work in places where it’s needed most, through partnerships with local housing entities like Common Ground, Habitat for Humanity, Home, Inc., and others working on the ground to provide affordable housing.

John Cary is the founder of and author of “The Power of Pro Bono: 40 Stories about Design for the Public Good by Architects and Their Clients.” He writes and speaks widely on architecture, design, public service, and social justice.

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